Vision: Arab-American Literary Criticism

Steven Salaita

In only one or two generations, Arab Americans will achieve a literary renaissance of huge significance. More opportunities for cultural and ethnic validation exist than did in the past, and Arab Americans are now articulating their voices with originality and confidence. As the body of Arab-American literature flourishes and grows, critics and scholars need a specific critical matrix that uses Arab artistic traditions as well as American, and is articulated from within the Arab-American community.

With the founding of Al Jadid (1995), a quarterly publication dedicated to Arab culture and arts here and abroad, and Mizna (1998), a tri-yearly publication displaying Arab-American literature and visual arts, more venues are available. A number of anthologies, novels, articles, and collections of poetry by Arab Americans and aimed primarily at an Arab-American audience have also appeared within the last decade. Arab Americans will soon become a serious force within the broad category of American letters, inevitably moving beyond an internal audience, whether intentionally or not. This artistic growth can play a crucial role in the external interpretation, acceptance, and humanization of Arab Americans and the Arab people as a whole.

Arab Americans benefit greatly from the work of Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans, all of whom have striven to affirm their own literatures and criticism. No longer may a serious student or scholar provide a monolithic or Eurocentric definition of American literature. Arab Americans will contribute to this diversity.

Lisa Suhair Majaj eloquently discusses these issues in her “New Directions: Arab American Writing at Century's End” and in “Post Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing.” Majaj argues for new directions in all aspects of Arab-American letters, observing that Arab Americans inhabit numerous cultures and backgrounds, and, in turn, write for a diversified audience. She urges them to remain grounded and work towards understanding their cultural heterogeneity, keeping their matrix open even as they seek to define and maintain a sense of identity. She further adds, “literary criticism also has a crucial role to play.” Let us take a closer look at some of the ideas and questions she poses.

What is an Arab American? This is our most important question, yet perhaps the most difficult to answer. Must one speak Arabic? Be fully Semite? Must an Arab American be Muslim? Can he/she be Jewish? Are non-American citizens Arabs or Arab Americans? These questions will constantly be rewritten and re-answered in such a diverse and dynamic culture.

At this fledgling stage, I would argue that exclusivity can be dangerous and that Arab Americans should be identified by their affiliation. In other words, if a person of Arab background chooses never to acknowledge his or her heritage, then it is counterproductive to incorporate that person's work into our critical inquiry. On the other hand, a non-Arab who contributes positively to the Arab American community and is accepted by this community presents us with a debatable situation. For instance, Mizna editor Lisa Gizzi, who is not Arab, has offered a valuable literary outlet for numerous Arab Americans. In such a case, ethnography must be put aside, for content and the philosophical reasons for that content can be more important than ethnicity. Because of stereotypical attitudes toward Arabs, acceptance in circles beyond their own is a serious concern, although, as Majaj notes, this concern is simply one aspect of our criticism.

Most Arab Americans write in English; this is perhaps the largest distinguishing feature between Arab and Arab-American authors. Our criticism's guidelines will certainly respond accordingly, for it makes little sense to bar English-speaking Arabs from the Arab American movement. In the Arab world, ever since theJahiliyya era, linguistic expression can only be properly conducted in Arabic. However, across the Atlantic this becomes severely limiting. Anglophone Arabs are no less Arab than anybody else — they merely carry different cultural values as a result of their different social circumstances.

The first mistake Arab-American writers often make is trying to write back towards a pure Arab heritage. In this, they will never succeed, for such a thing exists only in the imagination. Their task is to build a heritage identifiably linked to the Arab world but that is nonetheless their own. The issue of whether criticism should be written in English or Arabic also merits discussion; although ultimately, any language is expressive, and should be regarded as fluid rather than exclusive.

As such, it seems even more necessary to consider affiliation first. Affiliation is pre-determined, but affiliation is a challenge that, when analyzed, can bring crucial issues into debate. A number of Native and African American critics have discussed the concept of mediation, but for Arab Americans, the idea of negotiation might be more fitting. Negotiation requires critics to consider literature in the context of the community from which it has evolved. The community is as relevant to the work as is the text itself. By exploring the community, Arab-American critics will find the relevance of the text, and the community will in turn sustain the criticism. It is in the community where the critics can see living contrasts of preservation and assimilation, Arabism and Americana, xenophobia and camaraderie — all split visions that demand expression.

What, then, is Arab-American literature? There is a noticeable continuity between the artistic legacies of the Arab world and the work of Arab Americans. However, new generations learn these legacies in a contemporary American setting. I was born in West Virginia, and I write in English, but at the same time I have a strong awareness of Arabic literature and a conscious desire to incorporate Middle Eastern issues and aesthetics into my work. We might call this transferal, and work towards understanding how it affects the intention and tone of modern Arab American writing. We need an open-ended definition of Arab-American literature, one that can be challenged and expanded. I consider it work by authors affiliated, by birthright and/or conscious desire, with the Arab community in the United States, aimed primarily at this audience, and accepted by this audience as authentic and amenable. It deals directly or in passing with the aesthetics, politics, or peoples of the Arab world. The literary concept is thus given special emphasis; however, it should be extensive, inclusive of any form of linguistic activity, including oratory, scholarship, opinion, and autobiography, that deals with Arabs and/or Arab Americans and engages its audience in activist and communal values.

Let me enumerate some key issues confronting Arab-American literary criticism in the future:

Split vision, mediation, negotiation, and the ability to move back and forth between diverse cultural norms;e.g., wearing a kaffiyyeh and dancing the debke one day, then attending a baseball game in blue jeans and a baseball cap the next.

Assimilation versus preservation: This issue is overwhelmingly critical for first and second generation Americans of Arab origin.

Language: As nearly all Arab Americans, even those who are bilingual, write in English, it is becoming obvious that English will be their primary artistic medium.   

Ethnicity: This term is complex, but must nonetheless be examined. Who, ethnically, is an Arab? Is it matter of affiliation, or of blood? If the latter, to what limit? The widest possible variety of Arab Americans must work either to crystallize or expand this boundary.

Stereotyping: Films such as “True Lies,” “The Siege” and “Rules of Engagement” are evidence that although Hollywood has tempered its stereotyping of Native and African Americans, Arab-Islamic stereotypes in the United States remain disgracefully prevalent and intolerable. A visible literature should humanize the Arab peoples and make their stories accessible to other communities.

Acceptance: How receptive will a non-Arab audience be to Arab American writers and what strategies will better ensure their success?   

Politicization: Arab-American authors are first and foremost writers, then political scientists and sociologists. However, the critic should remain sensitive to literary involvement with political issues both in the United States and in the Arab world.

Diversity: Majaj believes that “what we need is not less but more representation.” This includes homosexuality, feminism and class. We also need to identify where xenophobia, homophobia and sexism exist in our own society. This will open more possibilities for affiliation.

Cosmopolitanism versus pluralism: Cosmopolitanism favors voluntary affiliations as opposed to inherent identities (pluralism). As David Hollinger writes, “it emphasizes the dynamic and changing character of many groups, and the potential for creating new cultural combinations.” Pluralism “respects inherited boundaries and locates individuals within ethno-racial groups to be protected and preserved.” I cautiously prefer cosmopolitanism, but stress that the issue needs to be opened to thorough dialogue.

And finally, pan-Arab Americanism , national alliances, and religion: The common term describing Americans of Arab origin is Arab American. However, many immigrants from Lebanon and their descendants, although Arabic speakers, choose to identify themselves not as Arab, but as Lebanese, Christian or even Phoenician. Some Muslim Arab Americans are more comfortable associating with Muslims of various ethnicities than with Christian Arabs, while a disproportionate number of Arabs in the United States are Levantine Christians. Nonetheless, Americans of Arab origin display a cohesion across such lines that is much stronger, in many regards, than the Arabs in the Maghrib and Mashriq. We must seek to understand how divisions in the Arab world affect Arab society in America. Criticism must take into account the fact that the Arab world, and, in turn, Arab America, are hardly homogenous.

As Arab-American literature develops a character of its own, its own unique analysis will mature. Arab Americans should never compromise the elements of their culture that they find to be vital for the sake of their art and identity. They must express themselves on their own terms, in voices that feel natural and evoke freedom.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, no. 32 (Summer 2000)

Copyright © by Al Jadid (2000)

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